Sunday, November 15, 2009


If our roots aren't dipped in empathy, how does one acquire it?  If we have only experienced insufferable emotional blows as we grow from our roots, and never have had the experience of empathy immersion, how do we know what it feels like to be bathed in compassion?  If our soul has been pummeled by angry fists and hoofed by steel-toed boots, how do we learn to love ourselves?

We only learn survival behaviour.  Nasty retorts, cowering fear, rage fueled outbursts, or complete emotional shut down numbness..... all for self protection.  No win-win here.  Just a series of serious stumbling over bad decisions, poor choices, ineffective means of connecting.   Still there is a deep hunger to be loved.

Lose-Lose equals  Lonely-Lonely

There's a spiraling effect, which turns into a self fulfilling prophecy.  Believe you're unloved, you will act like you're unloved.  Believe you deserve to be treated poorly, you will act like you don't give a damn about yourself or others.  Sometimes, if you believe you're owed a better life because of all that you've endured, you demand it in a way that stomps on others.  Entitlement overkill.  This perpetual unlovely behaviour squeezes any semblance of empathy right out of touch. It distorts clear minded thinking.  It spoils the sweet aroma of sensitivity and compassion.  It twists logic until it chokes on bile.

If there is a continuous taste of bile and a stomach churning up angry acid, how can you feel empathy?  You can't.  The pain is too red raw........... there is no lining left..... no protective tissues to console.

Is there any way to feed those  roots....the same ones that have been neglected since childhood? Sometimes, it's impossible.  Damage is so deeply embedded that it seems to chemically alter the brain somehow.  Though I am no scientist, I have met my fair share of people who are either born with the inability to feel empathy for others, or whose reslience has been worn down, forced by a life of abuse.  The capacity to dig into the soulpocket where empathy dwells just isn't there. Maybe the learning issue is more than making a choice to look through the eyes of another.  Maybe there is a physical manifestation of psychological damage?  Maybe the roots are dangerously tainted by psychopathology.

Sometimes it IS possible to help someone by feeding their roots.  How?

By choosing to love the unlovely.  
By allowing them to listen to the stories of the people they may have negatively impacted.
By allowing them to tell their story.
By encouraging and encouraging their willingness to change.... to reform, transform, stand on a new platform....... 
By accepting vulnerability as a state of mind worthy of our trust in learning and growth.

By mentoring through actions and guiding....... role modellng the softening melt that happens when forgiveness is the goal.
By recognizing that every single human being is made from the same fabric, the same ingredients.
By wrapping our faith around the belief that we are all players within the Body of Christ. 

It's a lot of work........a lot of effort.  Our natural inclination is to stay within our own belief system... our own way of seeing the world and how it impacts us.  If only we can step out and look through a different lens.  

It's a Grace of God go I thing.........even if you believe there is no hope in empathy transformation. 

ps.... this theory is in the process of being tested.........and continues this week.  


Anonymous said...


Jesus said it is easy to love someone who loves you. When he healed the leper he reached out and touched him, in the past he did not do that, nor did Jesus need to. I believe He did so to show compassion, to affirm and to reassure. It had been so long since this man had known human touch but Jesus sensed that he needed it. He loved someone very different from Him.
You have echoed the very lesson that Jesus was teaching us in Matthew.


awareness said...

Wow, Mavis! Thank you. You are such a sweetie. I'm trying very hard to apply this lesson.

Carmi said...

I've always wanted to believe that empathy knows no religion, that basic compassion is encoded into our DNA no matter what belief system we follow - if any at all.

Mind you, I grew up under the protective umbrella of a generation that lived through the ultimate example of humanity's inhumanity to its fellow man - and all based on ethnicity and religion - so I guess I'm still somewhat cynical about the universality of empathy.

But I've still got to believe that the sun will eventually shine on the deepest valleys of the human condition. And that's the lesson I choose to teach our children.

As always, Dana, you've made me think about how we can improve the world around us. Thanks.

awareness said...

Carmi... I crosses all faiths, yes.

I believe there are a few who are not born with the empathy DNA, and then there are a few who were born with potential but it was knocked out of them. The majority have it, and continue to apply it, despite the intense life blows. Resiliency is an amazing thing to behold in someone who has been given more than their share of inhumane blows to the soul.

I also believe empathy needs to be nurtured through teaching and our actions. Kindness is the most important lesson we can offer our children, don't you think?

sherry ♥ lee said...

Thought provoking. I grew up in an environment where sense of self and worthiness was not at an optimum. And yet. Both my sister and I grew up to be empathetic, giving, loving, caring individuals. We were able to give this to others, but found it hard to love ourselves. I have learned to do that through the friends I've made, the company I have kept and reminding myself daily that I am worthy of my own love and that of others. My sister didn't make it which saddens me deeply. I know that how we feel about ourselves is our choice, no one else's. We don't have to listen to what others say and we learn to have faith and belief. Having faith in something or someone bigger than us makes a huge difference in that. I learned this even while living within an environment that was poisonous. My father may have been a negative soul but my mother was not and encouraged us to attend Sunday School and Church. I'm a firm believer in the possibility of rising above.

theMuddledMarketPlace said...

over years i certainly know people who appear to be born without that empathy gene

far more worrying are those whom life has ground down
and choked the joy out of
and yes,
there's that terror of it never being able to be regained...
i think
it's not regained the usual ways and not at a speed others might wish
but slowly, slowly
along unusual pathways
and forgotten byways
i truely believe empathy begins to dare to grow

the trick is allowing this to happen in a safe environment

i am remembering a woman who watched ducklings waddle out of a locked facility...
and someone else who leaned how to listen to birds sing....
and another who came to walk through a town without ever shouting...

and i mourn for others who never get that chance

awareness said...

Sherry, thank you so much for sharing some of your story. You know it only takes one person to light the flame of empathy in us doesn't it? Even if our childhood situations are really difficult, if one person can light the way, we learn to see the importance of reaching out. The other motivator comes from our desire and need for love and belonging. Our very own behaviour to try to fill that need (by helping others, reaching out etc) teaches us empathy.
Understanding that a higher power loves us unconditionally and always forgives.....huge in our learning and personal growth.
I too believe in the resilience and desire of rising above the negative circumstances.

awareness said...

mmp.... There are folks out there with Borderline Personality Disorders who most definately missed out on the gene. Thank God, its limited.... enough of them though to be concerned.
Like you, it breaks my heart to meet someone who has been crushed by life's blasts to the soul. But, if they have the potential, it can be recovered.... I love, love, love your examples. The softening of a heart that is protected by hard plastic armour is a sight to behold. Tenderness from a hardened heart is beauty in a beguiling form.

thank you for your comment.